Oil and Water Don’t Mix with California Agriculture

KERN COUNTY, CALIFORNIA

From the “Petroleum Highway” — a rutted, dusty stretch of California State Route 33 — you can see the jostling armies of two giant industries. To the east, relentless rows of almonds and pistachios march to the horizon. To the west, an armada of oil wells sweeps to the foothills of the Temblor Range.

Fred Starrh, who farms along this industrial front, has seen firsthand what can happen when agriculture collides with oil. On an overcast February day, he drives his mother-of-pearl Lincoln Town Car down a dirt road through his orchards. Starrh Farms has 6,000 acres of pistachios, cotton, almonds and alfalfa. Starrh proudly points out almond trees planted 155 to the acre with the aid of lasers and GPS. At the edge of his land, he pulls up beside 20-foot-high earthen berms, the ramparts of large “percolation” ponds that belong to a neighbor, Aera Energy.

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California Drought is No Problem for Kern County Oil Producers

Farming accounts for the lions’ share of water use in Kern County and 88 percent of the Kern County Water Agency, according to Creel. This is not surprising when one looks at a map of the San Joaquin Valley. In spite of the valley’s desert conditions, the region has been transformed by these massive irrigation projects into a Cartesian gridwork of farms. Today, irrigated farmland and grazing pastures account for more than half of Kern County’s 8,100 square miles.

But there is another big water user in Kern County – the oil industry. In spite of the dwindling production from its aging oilfields, Kern County still accounts for 10 percent of the U.S.’s domestic oil production. While occupying a far smaller land footprint than the county’s agricultural users, the Kern County oil industry consumes a staggering volume of water. According to the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, Kern County oil companies injected 1.3 billion barrels of water and steam into the ground in order to produce 162 million barrels of oil a year.

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